Looking out my cabin door one morning from a small community that overlooks Yosemite Valley, I see broken clouds, snow coated trees, and brownish-white slush leading toward the Valley floor. El Capitan’s golden wall has streaks of water down its face, and Half Dome is hidden in the clouds.
It’s early-February, and though you wouldn’t know it by how wet and sloppy it is outside, it’s prime climbing season – maybe not for everyone – but for those who prefer cold, crisp conditions. This is why in January three years ago, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made a continuous 19-day push on El Cap’s Dawn Wall to complete the world’s longest and hardest rock climb.
To the really motivated, this winter day was a climbing day. A few areas stay dry even in rain and snow, including the Knobby Wall and a series of cracks at the Chapel Wall called Heathenistic Pursuit and Gold Dust.
For most routes here though, the rule of thumb here is to wait for one to two days after it rains to let the rock dry.
During much of the year, Yosemite Valley’s granite is slick due to glacier polish and how the rock captures and holds in the sun’s heat. Add in sweat, which makes hands and feet greasy, and it’s even harder to hold on. In winter the rock is grippier, making it easier for shoes to stick on edges and fingertips to stay put on face holds.
Those looking for sun will want to stick to the south-facing walls such as Five and Dime, the Cookie Cliff, Arch Rock, Reeds Pinnacle, and the South Face of Washington Column.
My neighbor and I climbed a few hundred feet up to Dinner Ledge on South Face of the Column right before New Years and it was T-shirt weather the whole way. We even hauled up a D4 portaledge and my friend spent the night up there alone and watched the sunrise behind Half Dome the next morning. This is a line Mountain Project calls “the busiest wall route in the entire Valley” … but he and I never saw another party on it.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to climbing this time of year, beside the optimal conditions, is the lack of crowds. During May through October it’s common to wait behind six or more teams on a popular climb, which can turn a two-hour outing into an all day affair. But this time of year you’ll be lucky if you see more than two or three other teams out the whole day, even on the weekend.
(I haven't seen a team on Nutcracker – perhaps the most popular long trad line on the Valley floor – since late autumn.)
What keeps the crowds away this time of year is fickle weather, cool morning and afternoon temps, and short days. From late afternoon to early morning it commonly drops down to the 30s and high 20s. That's not great for camping, but since Yosemite is only two hours from Modesto and four hours from the Bay Area, it’s an easy day drive in for many climbers.
When the sun hits the rock here, it heats up like a solar oven and it can feel like a summer day when you’re out at the crags.
On days when it’s in the 50s, climbing in the shade is fun too. Though eventually, the cold seeks into your bones. That’s why it’s best to bring hot drinks (everyone at the crags has a Thermos of tea), extra jackets, and puffy pants. I belayed a local climber on a 100-foot 5.14 tips crack recently, a route that doesn’t see the sun all day. The rock felt 20 degrees and his fingers burned from the cold, but he was willing to put up with the discomfort so he could do his best.
Long classics such as Astroman (10 pitches) and the Rostrum (8 pitches) are in condition too. Astroman is in the sun much of the day, and even though the Rostrum faces north, and thus doesn’t get sun this time of year, the rock was entirely dry when I climbed it recently. We hauled a small pack up the Rostrum with extra layers, a thermos of tea, and a bag of cookies.
Over New Years one Bay Area team climbed a first ascent big wall route on the Jericho Wall, a north-facing wall tucked up on Glacier Point Apron.
The team climbed around short sections of ice and snow to complete the line and they reportedly loved every shivering moment of it.
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